ALEXANDRIA, Egypt: The waves pounding on the coastline of Alexandria are relentless. The Qaitbay Citadel, an imposing fort that stands at the apex of the city’s seaward entry has stood for hundreds of years as the frontline defence of the city.
Even its stone foundations, salvaged from the wreckage of one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, The Lighthouse of Alexandria, are proving no match for a rising and more turbulent sea.
This ancient city has witnessed much since being founded by Alexander the Great, more than two millennia ago.
Now, the ‘Bride of the Mediterranean’, as locals refer to the city, faces the latest challenge in its storied history - human-induced climate change.
Major interventions are taking place across the seafront, a clear and visible mark on Egypt’s second city, which is facing existential questions about its future.
Tens of thousands of concrete wave-breaking devices have been installed in strategic locations, including in front of Qaitbay Citadel. The face of Alexandria is changing and it needs to, according to experts.
Sea level rise is happening at a faster rate here than in many other parts of the world. For a low-lying city like Alexandria, it is a threatening scenario, which promises to reshape coastlines, contribute to coastal erosion and lead to more flooding and saltwater intrusion.
Beyond the slow onset rise of the sea, which certain models show could result in city inundation within decades, perhaps of more immediate alarm is the increase in extreme events, like heavy rain and storms. So too, is Egypt warming also twice as quickly as the rest of the planet, due to climate change.
“What Alexandra really suffers from in recent years is the occurrence of extreme events. In the last few years we have lived with prolonged summers with very high temperatures, more than the normal we used to live with,” said Tarek El-Geziry, professor of physical oceanography at the National Institute of Oceanography and Fisheries.
“And on the other hand, we have shorter winter periods, but with low temperatures and severe conditions. Add to this is the issue of the expected sea level rise."
The main purpose of wave breakers is to protect the coastline from wave energy, which can cause erosion. They are placed based on “geometric and engineering distribution” to dissipate the power of the incoming tides, El-Geziry explained.
But they cannot cover the entire length of Egypt’s Mediterranean coast, where the problem exists.
“The regions where we are missing the structure or the coastal wave breakers are suffering from the erosion problem,” he said.
Significant waves normally measure around 2m in Alexandria, but in recent years have been recorded at up to 7m, causing flooding throughout congested city areas, where populations have continued to grow.
“The problem with the urban areas is we're talking about the concentration of population and economic activities. And that makes it more difficult to deal with the different issues that we're talking about,” said Mohamed Abdrabo, head of the Alexandria Research Center for Adaptation to Climate Change
“You're talking about sea level rise, you're talking about inundation by the sea, as well as groundwater increasing due to saltwater intrusion. You're talking about heat waves, you're talking about the impact on infrastructure, that sort of thing. It's a long list,” he said.
PLANNING FOR THE WORST
Special attention has been paid to protecting Alexandria’s historical sites, such as the citadel, as well as the catacombs of Kom El Shoqafa.
Sitting just metres from the sea, the Biblioteca of Alexandrina, designed to be a continuation of the city’s ancient library, is also in an area of future risk.
The director of its museum of antiquities, Hussein Abdel Bassir, is adamant that history and culture must be preserved - at the same time as looking after human livelihoods.
“Climate change has become a very dangerous issue. I think this is the time we should work hard on solving this issue before losing a wonderful city like Alexandria,” he said.
“Alexandria is a very historical city, one of the first cities in history. We don't want to lose it.”
He believes the work to keep the waves at bay and the groundwater from rising is important and is proving to be successful.
But Abdrabo believes the city is still trying to adapt to climate change in a piecemeal fashion, instead of thinking in creative ways to build long-term resilience to a problem that is not going to disappear.
He said that the concrete blocks along the shore would prove to be expensive and eventually ineffective in protecting the city, while also impacting the marine environment.
“So far, we are not actually taking any serious sort of steps. It's more like day-to-day work dealing with current issues and problems. You're dealing with the symptoms. You're not actually dealing with the problem,” he said.
He said that as the world continues to flail in its response to preventing global temperature rise, the effects will continue to creep up on Egypt’s vulnerable environments.
“When you talk about the climate, most people will talk about the future and what is going to happen in the future. We don’t think about the gradual impacts. But at a certain point in time, you will have a very serious problem,” Abdrabo said.
“You need to have proper plans and strategies that you start from now. Because if you just wait until this happens, I think it will be too late.”
A RISING POISON
In rural areas not far from Alexandria, where farmers grow their crops, the risks are cascading.
The Nile Delta is the food bowl of Egypt, a lush land enriched by nutrients flowing down the famous river toward the sea. Throughout history, it has been the lifeblood of the region.
But the flow of the Nile has been disrupted, major dams now span it and a fast-expanding urban population has placed greater strain on a finite water supply.
Now, this is one of the most vulnerable places to climate change in the entire world. Salt from the rising sea is infecting the soil and groundwater like a slow-spreading poison, rendering farmland arid and certain types of vegetables and fruits ungrowable. About a quarter of the Delta sits at or below sea level.
In the face of the growing saline intrusion, farmers have changed tact, shifting to citrus cultivation, which grows more favourably under such salty conditions.
“Ten years ago it was possible to grow vegetables here. Now we suffer from climate change,” said Morsi, a fruit grower, outside the city of Rosetta.
Between Morsi’s plantations and the sea is a truly barren patch of land. Heavy machinery is at work under the watch of Egypt’s military, which patrols the coastline.
Massive earth shaping works are underway to artificially raise the land close to the shore to protect it from the rising seas. It has proven effective, farmers say.
“Before the construction of the seawater barrier this was already farmland. However, when the saltwater encroached, the plants perished,” said Gamal Al-Hefnawy, an agricultural architect in Rosetta.
“Since we are now separated by distance and the seawater barrier, we will do fine. But the land in the immediate vicinity of the sea is not arable.”
The farms rely on canals connected to the Nile - this network is the only thing keeping nature alive here. Irrigation is the only way to desalinate the plants, which is water intensive, a difficult proposition given the ever-stretched demands on the river.
Amid rising temperatures and confused seasonal patterns, the farmers said they rely on anti-stress chemicals sprayed onto their fruit trees.
“We have very serious problems with agriculture in the Nile Delta, which is not healthy,” Abdrabo said.
“Climate change or not, in Egypt, we are increasing in terms of population, which means that the per capita share of water is decreasing. And we need to think about that and try to figure out not practical ways of dealing with it.”
That may mean improved irrigation techniques, new types of crop cultivation and cooperative systems.
The delta area is huge and behaviours are engrained, however, he said.
With 104 million hungry people in Egypt, the risk of food insecurity rises with the mercury.